Why QR Codes, NFC and Augmented Reality Will Disappear into 'Visual Search'

QR codes are proliferating yet it's not clear that consumers are "getting it." ScanLife, it is Q3 trends report, says that 2D or QR barcode scanning is growing dramatically:

  • We have seen over 20 million scans in 2011, and that represents a 440% increase from 2010 through the same time period.
  • The number of countries scanning in a single day increased by 66% in a year. Users are now scanning from 128 different countries daily, a testament to the expanding global footprint of this technology.
  • The aggregated growth is also translating into a significant rise in the individual scans per code. As an example, the single largest marketing campaign this past quarter saw over 400,000 scans, compared to 65,000 a year ago. 

However US and UK consumer surveys indicate that most consumers don't know what a QR code is and only between 6% and 11% have ever scanned one (in the UK it appears to be 19%). According to comScore data, QR code scanners are mainly men and younger people (18-34) vs. other market segments.

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Somewhat strangely, QR codes seem to polarize marketers. There are some very vocal and aggressive QR code detractors that consider the technology a failure. And many see QR codes as some sort of interim step before NFC technology become mass market. 

In a parallel vein there's augmented reality ("AR"), which is a "cool technology" chasing a mass market use case. AR continues to be more of a novelty than something really useful to consumers -- or marketers. But it has potential in many non-commercial and commercial situations.

Then there's NFC, which has been written about extensively in connection with the launch of Google Wallet and mobile payments. Beyond payments, NFC is also a marketing tool and can deliver content and marketing messages to a handset with a simple touch of the device on an NFC-enabled surface or receiver. Given that very close proximity is required to invoke NFC it's not a substitute in all situations for AR or QR codes, which can both work from a distance.

A category that will likely subsume and incorporate all these technologies and tools is "visual search." Exemplified by Google Goggles or Amazon's new "Flow" app, it simply asks consumers to position the handset/camera over or in front of an object and then delivers information: reviews, prices, nearby stores, additional content and so on.

The notion of "visual search" is conceptually simpler and much more consumer friendly than "Augmented Reality," "QR codes" or "NFC." For that reason I believe that visual search will become the metaphor or category name for a range of approaches and technologies that are collectively about getting information or content (whether commercial or non-commercial) into the handset through the smartphone lens. 

NFC, AR and QR Codes all wear their complexity on their proverbial sleeves, while the term "visual search" buries the technological complexity behind a very descriptive and easy to understand concept.